Day 22: The Final Countdown

Well folks, this is it – the last day our the DeCaigny Abroad Trip 2017.  Today we only had a few last things to wrap up in Sofia, including the inside of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and Pa wanted to get a Harley-Davidson Sofia t-shirt.  We slept in, did a bit of housekeeping for our travel tomorrow, had a leisurely breakfast and headed out towards the Cathedral.

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is an Orthodox Cathedral, one of the largest in the world, built in the Neo-Byzantine style.  It’s also known as the main tourist attraction in Sofia.  Alexander Nevsky was not Bulgarian, but a Russian Prince of Novgorod who in the 13th century led a Russian army to defeat the Teutonic army (you can see the dramatization of this in Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece “Alexander Nevsky”, with the score written by Sergei Prokofiev).  It was named after a Russian prince as opposed to a Bulgarian one, because it was built in memory of the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War (liberating Bulgaria from the Ottomans).  Anyhow, the name of the Cathedral was changed between 1912 – 1916 to St Cyril and Methodius as Russia and Bulgaria were on opposite sides in WWI.

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There is no entry fee to the Cathedral, but you do have to pay 10 LEV ($7.50 CAD) to take photos.  I paid and the lady at the desk gave me a piece of paper with some Cyrillic written on it, and a little man in black robes approached me as I entered, gave my paper a little tear, and said “safe photo”.  There is little to no talking in the Cathedral, so the silence was deafening.  I definitely could have done with some orthodox chant.  We quietly walked about, watching the faithful light candles, pray to the saints, and line up and pray to the alter.

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Like many of the Orthodox churches and cathedrals we’ve been to, there is a giant chandelier right above the alter and in front of the iconostasis.  Alexander Nevsky is a really beautiful building, but I would say I have definitely seen more breathtaking Orthodox churches.

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After we felt like we had spent a sufficient amount of time in the Cathedral, we stepped out into the sun and headed to a nearby restaurant called Cattedral for some lunch – pizza, risotto and Irish breakfast for Pa.  We finished up and ordered a taxi for Pa using this app called Taxi Me.  It’s essentially like Uber, but finds you good and reliable drivers who won’t gouge you.  The driver pulls up and Pa hops in, on his way to Harley Davidson Sofia, so Ma and I walked around the nearby university grounds and sat on a sunny bench and talked about next year’s trip.

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After about 25 minutes or so, Pa returned, purchase in hand.  We had discovered by accident that Sofia actually has a pretty popular pedestrian only boulevard just steps from our shitty apartment called Vitosha Boulevard, lined with shops, bars and cafes.  We decided to do a bit of a cafe crawl, so we started at a place where we got sparkling water and ice cream.

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Moving on, we came across a few street musicians, a cellist and a guitarist/vocalist who were playing some original works as well as some covers.  We grabbed a bench and watched for a while.

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After watching the musicians, we wandered some more and eventually got to the end of the street.  By that time, we decided to find a place for dinner, and had read about a restaurant on the strip called Boom Burger, so we decided to try it.  We had some beers, burgers and onion rings and it reminded us of Cannibal Cafe in Vancouver.  We settled up and headed back down the boulevard, looking for a good place for Ma to get some dessert and Pa and I to get some rakia.  Rakia is a liqueur in the region, usually made from grape or plum, and is a lot like brandy (or the Palinka we had in Romania), and Pa and I figured we had to have some before we left.  We found a busy patio and Ma ordered a slice of cheesecake, and Pa and I each ordered a shot of their finest rakia – only burns a little bit going down!  We paid our delightful waiter and waddled back to our apartment, ready to pack for our flight tomorrow and ready to come home.  Until next year, Europe.

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Day 17: Oldie But a Goodie

Today we woke up to another grey and blustery day in Sozopol.  We packed our things and headed down for our last breakfast on the Black Sea.  Our wonderful innkeeper (we never did find out his name) gave us a bottle of Bulgarian red wine to take home before handing us over to the capable driving hands of Ivan, the sweet gentleman who had driven us from Veliko Tarnovo to Sozopol (we hired him again because we like him so much).  By 0945hrs we hit the road, the soundtrack from Evita on the car stereo, heading west, towards the city of Plovdiv.  Pa has been really excited to see Plovdiv because it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, and has evidence of habitation from the 6th millennium BC, and has changed hands between the Romans, Thracians, Ottomans and others plenty of times.  Pa is mostly interested in the ancient Roman ruins.

By 1400hrs and after a boring drive (what do I know, I slept through most of it) we entered the city limits of Plovdiv and found our hotel.  We’re staying in a boutique hotel here, and it looks like the hotel owns most of the street – two hotel buildings, a bakery, and a special relationship with a really good restaurant across the street, Hemingway.  Also across the street from us, is this:

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Ruins of a Roman Odeon from the 2nd century AD, also known as the Odeon of Philippopolis (the city was once called Philippopolis as it had been conquered by Philip II of Macedon).  The ruins were uncovered in 1988 and restoration has been somewhat continuous.  The Odeon still houses performances and shows!

There is a lot of old, ancient Roman and Thracian ruins and buildings around the city, including the crown jewel of the ruins, the Roman Amphitheatre, but we wanted to pace ourselves.  We went to Hemingway for a late lunch (more shopska salad for me) as well as bruschetta, spinach salad, beers and cheesecake, probably the best cheesecake Ma and I have ever had.  After lunch we decided to stroll along the main pedestrian street and see what kind of old stuff we would come across.

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Plovdiv was selected to be the European Cultural Capital in 2019, so they have all sorts of signage and improvement projects around the city.

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A short amble up the pedestrian street from our hotel we came across uncovered parts of the Plovdiv Roman Stadium, also known as the Stadium of Trimontium.  Again from the 2nd century AD, the stadium (only a part of which can currently be seen) seated 30,000 and housed all sorts of Olympic-type games and spectacles.  Pa was nerding out big time.

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What I like about the ruins is you can walk freely through them, touch them, sit on them.  They are still an interactive yet respected part of the city.

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Through the tunnel underpass of the Stadium was a wall built by Hadrian (not Hadrian’s Wall) and the remains of an aqueduct.

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Climbing out of the ruins we came across Dzhumaya Mosque, built by the Ottomans in 1363.  The Mosque marks the start of an artsy and funky district known as Kapana, or in English “The Trap”.  We decided to save Kapana for a later day on our trip.

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Attached to the Mosque is a Turkish coffee house, and Pa and I can’t say no to that potent, thick sludge.

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We wandered back down the pedestrian street, looking in the shop windows and admiring all the fashion and “fashion”.  There are a lot of menswear shops, some with beautiful suits and jackets (those who know me know how much I loooooove a beautiful coat on a handsome man) and some hawking the worn-and-torn-yet-bejewelled jeans I have seen far too much of on this trip.

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It was dinner time by the time we got back to our hotel, and we weren’t particularly hungry, so we settled for some pastries and coffees and snuggled down for the night.

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Day 15: This Ship Has Sailed

We were up early today, eager to eat breakfast and head over to the ferry that we had reservations for the would take us across the bay to the town of Nessebar.  We left our hotel to high wind and grey sky with Gravol in tow and headed back towards the old town, over to the Fish Port on the far side.  We found the kiosk – closed.  In true us fashion, we were there pretty early, so we decided to wait and walk around the marina, looking at the moored vessels.  Pa then asked a guy wearing a high visibility vest (Sozopol Port Authority?) if we were at the right spot, and he advised us as best as he could that “everything closed”.  When our time of departure rolled around, sure enough there was no ferry and no one at the kiosk, so we gave up on our Nessebar dreams and decided to have a lazy day around Sozopol.

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We decided to spend the morning walking the length of the peninsula and getting lost in the lanes and small streets of the old town.

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We discovered even more old wooden houses and small little churches.  We also discovered that in Sozopol residents do this thing where they post what looks like a flyer of a deceased relative on the front door of their houses.  What they say, I have no idea and I’m not sure if it’s a Bulgarian, Sozopol or Eastern Orthodox  custom.  We have also discovered that locals (in Romania and Hungary as well) think we’re English, and the English we meet assume we’re Americans, until we tell them and they immediately apologize.

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Despite the grey start to the day, the sun started to come out and humidity was at a high, although the wind was still strong.  We walked up and down small cobbled streets, said hello to passersby and workers boarding up businesses after the season.

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We made it to the tip of the peninsula and watched the water break on the rocks, acknowledging that at this point, this is the farthest east the 3 of us had been (so far in Europe) and that directly across the Black Sea from us was Georgia.

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We wandered back to the centre of the old town and relaxed under a patio umbrella with some coffee and soft drinks.  Then, almost out of the blue, the rain came.  It was still warm and humid and we were cozy under the umbrella, so we just enjoyed it.

After a few minute the rain let up and we walked out of the old town, past our hotel and south towards Sozopol’s other beach, Harmanite Beach

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Harmanite Beach is larger and quieter than Central Beach with apparently a lot of beach-side bistros and restaurants, but like most things, they were all shut and boarded up for the season.  The wind was getting stronger and whipping up some pretty big waves, although no surfers were to be seen taking advantage of it.

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We found a cute little cafe and had a long, leisurely late lunch of beer, fries, kebab and schnitzel.  By 1600hrs, we were tired and wind battered, so Ma and Pa went off to find a a grocery store to get some snack food while I stood on a bluff by a little church and watched the waves.  Again, the sun started to come and I thought that maybe we’d have a beautiful sunset, but as quickly as it had come out, the sun was again behind the clouds and a nearby flash and boom indicated that it was time for me to back away from the water and head back to the hotel, where I met with Ma and Pa and we had a hotel room beer picnic for dinner and an early night.

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Germany, Day 19: First, We Take Manhattan

This morning we got up, packed our bags for the penultimate time, ate some breakfast and said goodbye to Dresden, hopping on a train making its way from Prague to Berlin.  The train ride was a little different from our previous ones on the trip – because it was an EC (Euro-City) train, we got our own compartment, which I find to be one of the most romantic things in travel.

After 2 uneventful hours on our blue train we rolled into the enormous Berlin Hauptbahnhof at around 1330hrs.  We hired our cab and thankfully no one was killed on our 20 minute drive to the Charlottenburg area of Berlin.  We decided to go boutique for our last hotel on the trip and chose Homage a Magritte, a family run walk-up themed in the paintings and art of Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte.  The owner’s daughter Sofia greeted us and led us to our room.  The hallway walls are adorned with different paintings and themes of Magritte’s, and our room featuring Le Blanc Seing.  We then grabbed our necessities and hit the town.

The area of Charlottenburg is beautiful – long streets and laneways lined with cafes, boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants, book shops (one coffee/stationery combination shop!) and all very nearby to the s-bahn (like German skytrain) station of Savigny.  We had some soup and sandwiches at a nearby cafe and then headed for Unter Den Linden.

I have been so excited to see the Brandenburg Gate for a while now – I just think it’s the most powerful and poetic landmarks, the four horses, chariot and Lady of Peace bursting off the top.  I was ecstatic to finally see it, be near it, take photos of it.  I was, however, a little disappointed that a giant protest was happening almost right in front of it, and that you weren’t allowed to walk through.  It turns out, Berlin is also hosting German Reunification festivities and have roped off that part.

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The moved on and decided to peak at the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament.  Beside the building, was this touching monument, a memorial to the politicians murdered by Hitler.  Each of the 96 stones lists the memorialized’s name, dates, which party they were with and where they died.

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We then had a sit on the broad lawn in front of the Reichstag, dodging photo takers and other protesters while finding a good spot.

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Pa and I decided it was probably getting close to beer time so we walked back to the bahnhof, not before looking at the memorial to those who tried to cross over the Berlin Wall.  We also got to witness some sort of drunken Russian homeless screaming match, but no one seemed perturbed so we moved on.

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Outside of our train station we found a cute looking pub with a beautiful leafy beer garden and tucked in – delicious Italian food, sublime desserts and cold beer were the name of the game and we indulged before taking the stroll back to our hotel.

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Germany, Day 18: And She Shows You Where To Look

Today is our last full day in Dresden before we leave tomorrow morning for our final leg on this German Odyssey – Berlin.  We’re pretty sad to say goodbye to Dresden because it’s a beautiful, vibrant and sumptuous city, perfect for exploring, relaxing and people watching.

I love all the different spires of the city, so on our way to Dresden’s “Green Vault”, I decided to indulge myself:

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We entered the palatial complex called the Zwinger that houses the Green Vault – a series of rooms that their 18th century Prince Elector, Augustus the Strong filled with different treasures and delights.

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There is only a certain amount of people allowed inside the Green Vault at the same time, so you have to buy a ticket for a certain time.  Security was the tightest I’ve ever experienced at a museum as we had to lock up ALL bags (including Ma’s tiny purse), cameras and phones.  You then line up at two sets of doors that a guard lets you in, two at a time, you wait, then the doors on the other side open.  Everything is alarmed and behind glass, but it is easy to see why – all the rooms are different themes (amber, ivory, jewels, sculptures, bronze, coat of arms, silver) and contain many priceless treasures, big and small – ornate crystal drinking vessels, paintings, amber chess sets, diamond-hilted swords, etc.  After an excellent hour-long audio tour, we decided to embark on one of our favourite travel events, the self guided Rick Steves walking tour.

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Before we started the tour we had to get to the starting point, and that meant cutting through the Zwinger’s stately gardens.

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The tour started at Dresden’s Opera House, known as the Semperoper as Semper built it.  It burned down twice – once in the 19th century and then again, sadly, in 1945 as did many many other of the fine structures and treasures in the city.

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The last opera performed at the Semperoper in 1945 was Der Freischutz by Carl Maria von Weber and the first opera performed when it was rebuilt almost 40 years later, so they honoured Weber with a statue in front of a cafe.

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We crossed back into the Zwinger’s gardens and marvelled at the beautiful fountains and stonework.

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Part of our instructions were to cross from the fountains into the main garden through an orangery, but we noticed that this glassy atrium sold beer and pretzels and it was lunch time, so we stopped and had a beer overlooking the gardens before moving on.

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The Zwinger gardens are also home to this beautiful glockenspiel, outfitted with porcelain chimes that emit a much sweeter sound that the usual brass bells.

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We left the Zwinger and headed north towards the river Elbe, reading stories of Augustus the strong and some of the pre and post war history of the city.

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One of our favourite pieces was this 250 foot long porcelain-tiled mural showing a parade of the rulers of Dresden.  This piece miraculously survived the 1945 firebombing.

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Our walking tour ended along the river on a balcony walk that overlooks the Elbe.  We decided to have a sit and watch all the activity at the other side of the river.

It turns out Dresden is setting up a huge party – it’s the anniversary of Germany’s reunification and every year a different state’s capital hosts the bash – this year it’s Dresden’s turn as the capital of Saxony.  Huge white tents are set up everywhere as well as sound and lighting systems.  The festival starts this weekend, in time for us to just miss it.

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We found a beautiful river-side cafe where we treated ourselves to ice cream confections and fizzy water, ambling back into town where we bought our mandatory post cards and fridge magnets, grabbed some coffees, relaxed in the old market square before headed to dinner.  Again, Dresden spoiled us as we ate a delicious dinner on a beautiful sunlit square in the shadow of the majestic Frauenkirche while the local busker serenaded us with Leonard Cohen classics.

Germany, Day 17: Town Without Pity

Today we took a day trip to Leipzig.  I was really excited to check this city out because for many years it was the home base of the father of modern music Johann Sebastian Bach.  Bach was the cantor at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) and is buried in the floor there.  Leipzig is also the hometown of Felix Mendelssohn (meh) and an easy 1 hour train ride from Dresden on the ICE train (express train).  We got in to Leipzig and it was cloudy and blustery – definitely started feeling like autumn.  Once we got on the correct tram, we headed into the old city, and I’m sad to say it lacks the easygoing character of Dresden and the cute factor of some of the other cities we visited.  We went right away to the Thomaskirche because I was REALLY excited to see that Bach stuff.

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From the outside, the Thomaskirche is quite different from a lot of the churches and cathedrals we’ve already seen, probably because it’s Lutheran.  We turned the corner and there he was, JS Bach in front of his favourite instrument (pipe organ) and roll of music in hand.

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We moved inside the church and gawked at the TWO beautiful organs and quickly made our way to Bach’s grave.  Turns out, it may or may not be Bach’s actual remains – because JS wasn’t super popular in his actual day, he was buried in a modest graveyard.  When people discovered that he was actually a musical genius, they dug up what they think was his remains and re-buried them in the floor of this church.

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We then moved across the lane to the small but thorough Bach Museum.  Of course I had to buy some Bach goodies in the gift shop and then Ma, Pa and I moved into the “Treasures Room” – ACTUAL handwritten Bach manuscripts!  There was not photography allowed of that room, but had there been I would have taken ALL the photos of those manuscripts.  The museum had a lot of really cool features, including a room that played a Bach piece and you would press different buttons to isolate the different instruments in the piece, a room that had organ pipes suspended from the ceiling and if you clutched one and put your ear up to it, it would play you a Bach piece.  My favourite room was what I can best describe as an opium den for Bach fans: couches with screens and headphones affixed to them.  You put on the headphones and commandeer the touch screen where you can pick exactly what kind of Bach piece you would like to listen to – Sacred organ works, secular cantatas, etc.  We must have stayed there about a half our and all listened to our own streams.  Before we knew it we had walked through the whole thing and it was 1330hrs – time for lunch!

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I wanted to go to a place called Coffe Baum for lunch as it claims to be the oldest coffee bar in Europe still in operation.  We decided to brave the winds and sat outside.  Unfortunately, our server was not only completely disinterested/hated her job, but it’s the first time I have actually felt that a server hates me and everything I stand for.  Like, the kind of hate where she would have vandalized my car in high school or spread shitty gossip about me at the office, not because I’ve been mean to her, but because she’s awful.  Despite her terrible attitude, lunch was very good.

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We decided to call it a day in Leipzig and walked past the Thomaskirche, heading back to the tram station in order to catch the 1631hrs ICE train back to Dresden.

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We got to the train station at 1530hrs, so we went to Starbucks and had a coffee before heading to our platform to catch our train.  1631hrs rolled around and our train hadn’t come yet.  Pa then noticed the sign for our platform stated our train would be 3o minutes late (the stereotype that German trains run on time is a myth).  After the 30 minutes passed and still no train, we checked again – this time the board said 40 minutes late, and we noticed no other ICE trains had entered the station.  At 60 minutes, Pa noticed that the board had taken the entire train info down, so we made the quick decision to run a few platforms over and take the regional train.  The ICE train is a super fast express train and would have taken a little less than an our and the regional train makes all the stops and ended up taking 1 hour 40 minutes.  We got into Dresden at 1945 hours, over 2 hours later than we expected to be.  We headed to a pub for some pan fried potatoes and beers, headed back to the hotel and called it.

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Germany, Day 16: Slow Train A-Comin’

Today we got up early and said goodbye Franconia, hello Saxony.  We were leaving Nuremberg for Dresden, but in order to get there we had to survive a 5 hour train ride (with a transfer in Leipzig).  We had the foresight to reserve seats on the train so we didn’t have to elbow anyone out of the way to get seats together.  After breakfast we taxied to the train station and stopped in at our favourite train station shop Yorma’s to buy some drinks, baked goods and gummies (we’re been really into gummies on this trip since we learned that the gummi bear was invented in Bonn by the guy who created the company Haribo).  The train ride was actually really nice as the scenery was gorgeous – green hills and mountains, slow moving streams and brooks, herons, gardens, church spires, sunflower fields all entertained us and made me think of Goethe and his Romantic poetry about the German countryside.  We transferred trains in Leipzig and had an uneventful 1 hour train the rest of the way to Dresden.  We grabbed a cab that took us to our hotel in the old town, dumped our stuff and headed out to explore prior to beer time/dinner.

Dresden is old/new.  As I’m sure many of your know, Dresden was firebombed and completely devastated by the Allies in 1945 and 25,000 people died.  75% of the old town was destroyed, including an important Lutheran icon to locals, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady).  I read somewhere that it is like the St. Paul’s for Lutherans.  The Church was reduced to rubble and because Dresden was in East Germany during the DDR days, the Church was not rebuilt until recently, construction being completed in 2006.  I was really excited to see this Church and was not disappointed.

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The inside of the church does not allow photos, so I will have to describe it – it’s light and bright, using a lot of lighter woods and white stone with a giant black and gold Baroque alter in the front and centre.  We soon discovered that we arrived in Dresden in the middle of their Bachfest, so if we’re up to it, we may try and catch an organ concert.  Also inside they have on display the original cross from the top of the church.  It fell and was covered up by rubble after the firebombing.  It’s a strong and somber symbol to the tragedy and heartbreak of war, as well as the resilience of a people who endured a horrendous event.  In a show of friendship, the man who forged the new cross for the cathedral in Coventry (a town in England that was flattened by the Luftwaffe) also forged the new cross for the Frauenkirche.

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We did a little more poking around, but as we have a whole day dedicated to exploring Dresden’s old town in a few days, we decided it was time for a sit and a drink.

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Dresden is historically a friendship city with Prague, so there is a lot of Czech and Bohemian influences in the city, including the beer and cuisine.  We found a pub directly beside our hotel (how convenient!) and Pa and I drank some Czech Pilsner, Pa and Ma had some delicious goulash and I had chicken and vegetables.  Soon it was time for coffee, cake, and boots off.

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